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1 Jun 2009 : Column 110

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire has had problems with an eco-town in his area. As I said a moment ago, the hon. Member for Leicester, South and I have also been battling hard together with our colleagues and neighbours to ensure that the idiotic scheme does not go through. However, the scheme has now become involved in murky politics, deals and everything other than proper planning and the proper assessment of the evidence. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there are also district councillors who are itching to say something about a scheme that will destroy their districts, but they are precluded from saying anything because the Standards Board for England will jump on them and say, “Ah, you’re now parti pris and therefore may not carry out your local democratic function of being a representative of your own electorate.” That is absurd and Kafkaesque, and it must stop.

There are two other hideous blots on the landscape of Harborough that will not be improved by this Bill. The first is the random depositing of wind farms in my part of rural Leicestershire. There is a case for wind farms and for developing alternative sources of energy, but these things need to be done in the right place. If we destroy something that is beautiful simply because we can—and, incidentally, because we have a subsidy from the East Midlands Development Agency to do so—we will be doing so for the wrong reasons and in the wrong place. It is more difficult than pulling hens’ teeth to get common sense out of this Government, the East Midlands Development Agency or the developers of such projects. I fear that there is nothing in the Bill that will make my constituents’ lives any easier.

A further planning matter that is not going to be sorted out by the Bill or dealt with in an enhanced demographic way relates to East Midlands airport. The airport is not in my constituency; it is in north-west Leicestershire. In May 2005, just as the general election campaign was beginning, the Government thought that it would be a good time not so much to bury bad news as to announce it. They announced a change in the air routes of the flights into the airport from the west to the south and to the east and, guess what, the airport—which is owned by the Manchester Airports Group; a strange connection, that—is now hoping that a night flight will come into the airport over my constituency in rural south-east Leicestershire once every 90 seconds.

East Midlands airport wants to promote itself as the freight hub of England, and good luck to it. I suggest, however, that it—and the Co-operative Wholesale Society of Manchester—must do things for my constituents, rather than doing things to them for its own exclusive economic benefit. All the profits from the airport tend to get sucked back into Manchester. None of those profits seem to come to my constituents, so far as jobs, beneficial environmental circumstances or access to the airport are concerned. We get the downside, while Manchester seems to get the upside, in terms of money and of a reduction in council tax bills, because the Manchester Airports Group is owned by the local authorities of Manchester.

This might sound like a rant, but I am desperately—

Sir Peter Soulsby: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Garnier: Of course I will.

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Sir Peter Soulsby: Before the hon. and learned Gentleman sits down, will he return briefly to the powerful case that he was making against the proposed eco-town in his constituency and on the bounds of my constituency in the context of the Bill? He made a powerful case which is, as he has said, supported by members of all parties on the county council. He was right to remind the House of that this evening. Does he agree that two particularly absurd contentions lie at the heart of the Co-op’s assumptions about the proposed eco-town? The first is that car ownership in the area could be held down to one car for every two households. The second is that some 60 per cent. of the people who would live in the area would be employed in the area. Both contentions are absurd and would have potentially disastrous effects on the infrastructure in his constituency and on the transport infrastructure and regeneration in mine.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Co-op’s proposal is that only one car would be allowed for every two households—I have no idea whether people would have to share a car and ring their neighbour to ask whether they could use it on a particular day—and that 60 per cent. of the people living in the eco-town would work in it. Those suggestions are utterly absurd and wholly unrealistic. It gets worse, however, because the Co-op wants—at someone else’s expense—to ram a tram line from the middle of my constituency straight through some of the roads in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Various tram stops and park and ride systems have been proposed, including one park and ride facility at Coles nurseries in Scraptoft to serve the Thurnby, Bushby and Scraptoft areas. But guess who had not been told about the proposal? Coles nurseries. That must be local democracy at work la new Labour.

I really despair when a Bill such as this is given only four sittings in Committee; it has to be out of Committee by 18 June. Given the kind of infrastructure projects that the Government want to encourage, the term “democracy” is wholly meaningless in this context. I urge all right hon. and hon. Gentlemen and Ladies who are elsewhere to return to the Chamber soon, so that they and those in the Chamber can vote this wretched piece of legislation into oblivion, along with the Government.

9.4 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It has been an interesting debate, and two identifying characteristics perhaps stand out at the end of the day. The first is the theme of so many speeches from all parts of the Chamber—querying whether the Bill is really necessary. Local examples have been used to show where the Bill is likely to fall down in achieving its objectives and might be deemed irrelevant. So many speeches caught that flavour. The second identifying theme might turn out to be that this is one of the first pieces of legislation that the House has had to deal with post parliamentary apocalypse—in other words, post the sense that we gained while away last week and in the couple of weeks preceding it that something profound is happening outside the Chamber in the community. It was first associated with expenses and the like, but then became focused on a more general dissatisfaction with the political process and how it is run. This Bill might be one of the first that can be identified as asking this Parliament, “Do they really get it? Do they really understand
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why people feel so aggrieved at the way in which we do business and our democracy works? Have they really understood why people outside are so profoundly dissatisfied?”

A couple of colleagues—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—have mentioned the Standards Board. There is a patent absurdity in ruling out those who are elected to represent a particular area from being able to speak on a topic that concerns them. We know that that it is absurd, the Government must know that it is absurd and the public certainly know it is absurd to elect someone in an area where a profound issue needs to be dealt with, only for them to be prevented from speaking about it. That is one of those things that people outside Parliament regard as utterly frustrating and it angers them enormously, yet all of us—the system—seem unable to do anything about it. Sooner or later, if we get it, we must recognise that such absurdities will have to go. The sense of powerlessness that people have expressed recently has caught us unaware in one aspect of our lives in this particular place, but it might well catch us out in other aspects as well. We can look through the Bill and find examples of where that might be the case.

My first concern therefore goes to the very heart of part 1; it is about the strictures concerning democracy. Do we get it? What is the point of the Bill’s argument in creating a duty to promote democracy? In introducing the Bill in the other place, the noble Baroness Andrews said that there was

As a Government Minister, she would know about that. She continued:

People are certainly facing that in North-East Bedfordshire, because unemployment has risen by 182 per cent. in a year. I repeat: my constituency has seen a 182 per cent. rise in unemployment in just one year. I say that because if Labour were in opposition and a Conservative Government had presided over a 182 per cent. increase in a year, I suspect that this place would be in uproar and that people would be on the streets outside. The issue, however, has somehow been glossed over, because the public have been persuaded by the Government that it is just one of those things that they cannot control. I am not sure whether the Government get it—the fact that one of the reasons for people being angry is this sense of powerlessness in respect of unemployment, as they were promised that boom and bust would go away, but feel that nothing is being done about the problem. The noble baroness was quite right to mention uncertain circumstances, particularly in housing and jobs, but I do not get any sense that anything in the Bill is designed practically to deal with them.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being most generous. Will he allow me to give another reason for the fact that the public simply do not get it? The Bill could, but fails to, create a safe policy for sites of major accident hazard such as those on Canvey
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Island, providing proper separation between residential homes and schools and those dangerous industrial sites. The Bill represents a lost opportunity.

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes his own point.

Once again, a Government with good intentions fall down at the point of legislation. We have seen it before: good intention smothered by over-regulation and sometimes a failure to deliver the resources that are needed to provide something—in this instance, a duty for local authorities to promote democracy.

Let me offer a challenge to the Minister that I offered to the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate. If a local authority has been given a duty, what happens if it is deemed to have failed in that duty? What sanction will be imposed on an authority that is deemed to have failed? What criteria will enable someone to judge whether it has fulfilled its duty? If I, as an individual citizen, wished to mount an action against my local authority because I believed that it had failed in its duty to promote democracy, where would I start? What court or tribunal would I go to?

I think that my noble Friend Lord Ullswater had it right when he said on Second Reading in the other place that

the promotion of democracy—

I think that he was quite right. Once again, we have provided an opportunity for those who control local government, those who audit it and those who direct it from above to create a whole new panoply of criteria and performance standards against which a local authority is to be judged on matters with which it has already been dealing and which local people will not regard as being anything like as relevant as other issues that they wish to take up. So I am not impressed by the duty to promote that appears at the beginning of the Bill.

That democracy matters at local level is clearly important, and there is one matter on which I think that the Minister and I would agree. If we are to rekindle democracy in this country in the wake of what has happened recently, I do not think that any of us will exclude the contribution of local political parties to what must be done. Apart from our sense of a collective failure of Parliament, I think we are missing something if we do not recognise the change that has come over the nature of local political parties during our lifetime and perhaps the generation before.

We have moved away from the mass parties of the 1950s and 1960s, which provided a broad base of understanding of how politics worked locally. All too often now, local political parties are small. They are becoming more and more exclusive. The burden of carrying the local political flag has been falling on the same shoulders for a long time and people have worked exceptionally hard, but the refreshment that they used to receive has not been coming. That refreshment was made up of people who would, in their time, stand for
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representation on local authorities, understand the political process, explain it to others, and in some cases constitute the base of those who moved into national Government.

If we are to re-examine the constitution from top to bottom, and recognise the anxiety that people feel outside, at some stage we shall have to examine the role of local political parties across the board and see what they can contribute to change. If we exclude them from our considerations of the promotion of democracy, I think we will be missing something. The public out there do not feel that we represent them through our political party structure in the same way as they used to. That may be partly due to the nature of change in society and the fact that people have more choice on a variety of issues, but they still find themselves with the same political choice that they had 80 or 90 years ago. By and large, they do not have the same choice in any other sphere of life. If local authorities are to get to grips with promoting democracy, I think that they should look at local political parties, and I suggest that we do so as well.

I wish to talk briefly about two other parts of the Bill. Part 5 deals with regional issues, and I share my colleagues’ concern that an opportunity to dismantle structure has not been taken. I have been involved in this argument with the Government for some time in respect of their own relationship with local government. Ultimately, the Government have to take a risk with local government, because either they trust it or they do not. The same challenge will occupy the time of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State should she inherit responsibility when we form a Government. If one trusts local government, one really has to trust it, and that involves a degree of risk. I do not see this Government being able to do that, because although they talk the talk, they do not quite deliver. One example is regional strategy. The Bill was an opportunity for the Government, if they really believed in local government, to do away with the regional tiers and hand back real authority to local councils, but they have not taken it.

I wish to touch on two particular examples from my local area: housing numbers; and the difficult issue of Gypsy and Traveller sites. The two new authorities in Bedfordshire following the unitary change, Central Bedfordshire council and Bedford borough council, now have to deal with the planning totals set by the regional spatial strategy. In Central Bedfordshire, that will require 60,000 more houses by 2031. To give the House a sense of scale, I should say that that will require a 50 per cent. increase in population in just 20 years or so in Bedfordshire. The scale of change is extraordinary and much of it is derived not from the pressure of growth in Bedfordshire itself, but from what is happening in the neighbouring growth areas of Luton, Milton Keynes and Bedford. They cannot cope with the infrastructure problems. The eastern region reckons that £1 billion of transport infrastructure is needed to support all this, but there is currently £80 million in the budget for it.

Bedford borough council, which is now a unitary authority, will be expected to provide 19,500 more houses by 2021, but it has never met previous growth targets, because there was not the infrastructure and engine of growth in Bedford to produce these things. Those are the targets being set by a regional body that has no real understanding of the pressures and needs of
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Bedford itself. This should not be happening; Bedford councillors should take decisions on the needs of Bedford people in respect of the expansion in housing. Through this Bill the Government have missed an opportunity to take that approach.

The second issue that I wish to discuss relates to the difficult problems of Gypsy and Traveller sites, which everyone in this place knows are an issue. What has happened in my area is that decisions originally taken by local authorities in terms of their suggested numbers to meet need and demand have then been taken by the regional spatial strategy and the numbers have increased—the numbers were increased further last December. Local councils are now trying to find a number of pitches that they never agreed to and, again, local people feel abandoned because they cannot have a say.

We all know that the issue is difficult. The local authority will have to provide, but the local authority and its councillors are not accountable for decisions taken that dramatically affect their local communities. The issues in Stotfold and Arlesey in particular, where Conservative local councils have fought continuously in recent times against a very difficult development, emphasise that. When thousands of people in the area protested and wanted to make their opposition to this policy known, they knew that ultimately if their local authority does not move fast enough on the regional spatial programme, the Government have powers to intervene in the planning process, take the planning rights away from the local authority and make the decision over its head. That is an example of how regional top-down control is removing local power, and it is another particular area where the Government do not get it and do not understand why people outside are so frustrated.

Peter Luff: On this important point, is my hon. Friend’s area experiencing the problem encountered in my constituency? Wychavon district council has sought to do the right thing by the Traveller community and provide adequate pitches, but finds that its reward is that as it “attracts” more Travellers to the area the Government and the regional strategy impose more and more requirements on that particular area and not on other district councils. Doing the right thing and behaving responsibly are punished, rather than rewarded.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is an immensely difficult process, and I am sure that he shares my frustration with it. In the end, it is local councillors who should make the decision, not unelected people in a tier above.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Is it not an added absurdity that if a local authority turns down an application for an illegal Gypsy site such as several of those in my constituency, the planning authority can overturn that local decision on the spurious grounds that insufficient provision has been made for Gypsies and Travellers elsewhere in the area, even though demand appears limited? Surely it is right that the local council should decide how many Gypsies and Travellers there are in the area and how to provide for them.

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